Travelblog SA#24: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 2 – Peru

25th-30th October 2018

After my foray to Machu Picchu, I returned to Cusco for a while.  A place I had already spent a few days at (which you can read about here in a previous blog) but was drawn back to because of its old antiquated charm and there was still plenty more to see, not just within the city itself but also within the Sacred Valley just outside it.

I ended up spending almost an entire week, but I did my sightseeing at a relaxed pace. I had my boleto turistico now, so I had access to plenty of sites. I will not bore you with every single museum and relic I visited and instead focus upon the highlights.

 

Pisac

Although I found its ‘traditional market’ a little touristy, Pisac’s ruins are a must-see if you are exploring the Sacred Valley and just a short bus ride from Cusco.

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You can reach the Inca ruins by climbing up a steep trail from the central plaza or, for those of you who don’t want to get sweaty, you can catch a taxi to the official entrance on the other side. But if you do this make sure you still see all of the ruins, as the most interesting ones are a little further out.

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Just like in Ollantaytambo, I did notice that the guides here seem a little lazy. If you do get one, clarify with them how far they are actually going to take you into the complex as, when I was there, the (rather underwhelming) parts which just so happen to be near to the car park were crowded with people on tours, but places like Inti Huatana were pretty much empty.

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Not that I am complaining. It meant I got wander around them mostly to myself.

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Whilst on the way back to Cusco from Pisac, you can also see two other smaller sites called Tambomachay and Puka Pukara if you like. I enjoyed visiting them, but I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to ruins. They are conveniently very near to the road, so it is easy to get off a bus and hop on another one afterwards, but I wouldn’t say that they are must-sees if you are short on time.

 

Moray and Salineras

These two sites are located quite close together but cannot be reached by public transport, so they are easiest booked as a tour from Cusco.

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If you already have your boleto turistico then Moray is worth getting off of the bus for. Some of the people on the same tour bus as me waited while we were taken around this site though because it is not included within the BT (and it is admittedly not really worth it if you are not planning to see any of the others included in the ticket).

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Most people just take a photo of it from above and then leave, but you can wander down into it if you like. Although it is quite easy to get bored of this site visually, it is quite interesting from a historical perspective. The lower levels never flood, no matter how much it rains, and archaeologists are still not completely sure why. They also discovered that there are slight differences in temperatures between the terraces too, proving the Incas found an ingenious way to create a series of microclimates between the different levels. It is believed they grew different variations of crops in them.

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Salineras was definitely the highlight of the day though. Being privately owned, it is not part of the boleto turistico but only costs ten soles to enter. Built by the Incas hundreds of years ago, it is still a fully functioning salt mine today. During the rainy season, the irrigation channels fill all the individual pools and then, over the course of several months, they dry out until it is time for harvest.

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Chinchero

I originally intended to spend a night at this place on my way back from Ollantaytambo, but I couldn’t find any reasonably-priced accommodation so decided to make it as a day trip from Cusco instead.

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This village often gets compared to Pisac, as they are both home to a market and a series of Inca ruins. Chinchero feels like more of a genuine Andean town though. Whilst wandering around you will see lots of people clad in traditional clothing and its market is definitely for the locals as well as tourists.

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The ruins are not quite as preserved or impressive as Pisac’s – the colonials built a church on top of them – but the setting is lovely.

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The church is very interesting too. Its inner walls and ceiling are covered in old, faded, but beautiful murals. It was one of the most memorable ones I have seen in South America so far, but unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside so I can’t show you any of it.

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Around the back of the ruins, there is also an old Inca trail which leads into another valley if you fancy seeing some extra scenery.

 

Sacsayhuaman

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Just a short walk from Cusco itself, these ruins are a great example of the Inca ’s masterful wall-building.

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They are also situated upon a peak overlooking the city, meaning you are in store for some great views. I cannot recommend these ruins enough

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Museums

There are two art museums included in the boleto turistico, the Museo Municipal de Arte Contemporáneo and the Museo de Arte Popular. Both are okay and quite close to the main plaza. If you are walking past, then pop in, but I wouldn’t go out of your way to see them. Same with the Museo del Sitio del Qoricancha which, apart from its interesting collection of trepanned and elongated skulls, is just a collection of non-engaging artefacts and poorly translated displays.

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The Museo Historico Regional is quite good though. It is set within an old colonial building and gives you insight into the history of Sacred Valley from both an ecological and anthropological perspective.

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Last but, definitely not least, is Cusco’s Museo de Historia Natural. I actually enjoyed this place, but not entirely for the reasons intended. If you have a thing for laughably bad taxidermy, then this is a place for you.

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It is not included within the boleto turistico but, at only three soles for entry, it will keep you entertained for a few minutes, and it is (to be fair) one of the few museums in Cusco which is reasonably priced.

 

Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo

A surprising bonus included on the boleto turistico. Every evening, this place has a one-hour performance of traditional Andean dances from the Cusco region accompanied by live music (a video here). It was a perfect way to finish off my time in the Sacred Valley.

 

For more photos from Pisac, Moray, Salineras and Chinchero, click here.

More photos from Sacsayhuaman are included in my Cusco album.

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Travelblog SA#21: Cusco & The Sacred Valley Part 1 – Peru

15th-18th October 2018

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You would think that I’d have grown bored of historic highland cities by this point, but I was certainly glad I saved Cuzco for later in my trip because it topped them all. Once the old capital of the Incas, and then after, a colonial centre, it is a city with multiple layers and, as you wander around its streets and alleys, there is always something which catches your eye. Some of its original walls, built by the Incas, still stand today, and they were so masterfully shaped to fit into each other they baffle historians. I have not been to a city that I can be so happy to just freely wander and get lost within, since Kathmandu in Nepal.

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Cuzco has many sites to see but most are ones you need the boleto turistico for. This ticket is initially expensive but allows you to wander around dozens of museums and ruins not just within the city itself but the entire Sacred Valley. It has a time limit though, so it didn’t make any sense for me to buy one yet as I was heading to do the Salkantay trek in just a few days.

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There were a few places within the city which can be visited independently of the boleto turistico though, such as the Museum of Pre-Colombian Art, which I was very impressed by. Regular readers of my blog will be aware that I have a fascination with history but even I have to admit that sometimes endless cases filled ceramics and artefacts can bore me. This museum is one of those places which manages to make ancient relics engaging. They concentrate on quality rather than quantity and every single item they put on display is fully annotated with information of its context.

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They also have an audio guide (which costs extra but I highly recommend) and have divided the rooms of the museum in a way which takes you on a journey through Peru’s different pre-colonial civilisations. Many ones I had encountered before during the last six weeks. It was great to have a museum which brought them all together into a meta-narrative.

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Qorikancha was another attraction I went to see. Being a Christian monastery built over the ruins of an old Inca palace, you could almost say it is the very epitome of Cuzco itself.

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Although they might not look like much now, these bare-looking stone chambers within what is now one of the central courtyards of the monastery were once an astronomical observatory and series of temples. All of them were completely covered in gold, the recesses in the walls were filled with offerings to the gods and even the space in the middle was filled with shining statues. When the conquistadors arrived they were said to have been awestruck but that didn’t stop them having all of the gold melted down as part of the ransom for Atahualpa’s – the last Inca emperor – life, and building a church on top of its foundations.

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Interestingly, despite the Convent of Santo Domingo’s shady beginning, the monks of this place eventually took a more humanitarian approach later down the line and became advocates for indigenous rights and even helped to catalogue some of their myths and traditions. The modern convent, as it now stands, is host to a collection of colonial religious art where one can see some of conscious steps the clergy made to lure the natives into Christendom as part of the development of Peru’s mestizo culture, such as paintings depicting Jesus as dark-skinned, several examples of Incan deities assimilated with Christian saints, figures such as Mary chewing cocoa leaf, and even Inca-presenting women (in both features and attire) present in the biblical scenes.

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESUnfortunately, I can’t show you any examples of this as I was not permitted to take any photos of the artwork, nor the church of Santo Domingo itself (which is unfortunate, as it has a wonderful interior and great atmosphere), as well as a few other religious spaces within Convent grounds. This is probably the only criticism I have of the place, but I did find it to be a bit of a double-standard on their part, as they have no problem at all with you taking snaps of the ruins of a sacred Inca site they built over.

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Otherwise, I found Qorikancha a wonderful attraction. It is a great place to help gain insight into the history of not just the grounds, but Cusco itself, and the addition of an audio-guide you can download onto your phone enriches the experience. It is one of the cheaper attractions to see in Cusco and great value considering the amount of effort they have put into making it engaging for people.

I wish I could say the same thing about Cusco’s cathedral, which I had planned to visit that too but decided against it when I found out the quite frankly disgusting entry fee they are charging people now.

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Not many people pass through Cuzco these days without going to see Rainbow Mountain, which says something of its allure considering it is a very new attraction and not even made it into the current version of the Lonely Planet yet.

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All the tours which go there leave very early in the morning as it is quite far away. During the journey you from an altitude of 3400 meters to over 5000, and almost everyone will feel some degree of altitude sickness when the bus arrives at the car park where they have to finish the last leg of the journey by foot. All of the tour guides carry oxygen tanks and medication with them and the walk takes about one to two hours depending upon your fitness level. Many people end up hiring a horse to carry them and some even have to turn back.

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The views, before you even reach the ‘rainbow’ part, are stunning. Which is good, as taking photos gives you an opportunity to catch your breath.

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When you reach the top, the real struggle is then managing to get a decent snap of the view between all the crowds of people posing in front of it

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It was shortly after this photo was taken that something I was certainly not expecting happened to me.

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A storm was approaching – we had heard some rumbles nearby just a few moments ago – we were suddenly enveloped within a cloud of mist. The rumbling repeated, this time directly above us.

And then I felt something strike my head. There was a snapping sound, and it was followed by a weird sensation. I put my hand to my head where I’d felt it and a weird crackling sound spread across my scalp. Several people were staring at me and it took me a few moments to realise what had just happened.

I had been struck by lightning.

I mean, it obviously wasn’t a particularly big one, otherwise I would have been in trouble, but still, I think it’s quite cool that I am now one of a small number of the population who can say such a thing.

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It happened so quickly and I didn’t really have too much time to dwell on it because we were then engulfed in a snowstorm. Cold winds came, and with them, heavy snow. I wrapped myself in my coat and covered up my backpack. Within a just a few minutes, the Rainbow Mountain was white and its colours could no longer be admired. The winds were so bitterly cold I decided to start making my way back down to the car park. On my way, I passed people who were still on their way up and felt sorry for them, not only were they having to finish the ascent within a storm but they were not going to be able to see the mountain at its best.

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The next day I got ready for the next step of my journey, the Salkantay trek, which will involve four days of hiking through mountains of the sacred valley and ultimately conclude with me seeing Machu Picchu.

I will be returning to Cusco though, and when I do there are plenty of other sites I plan on seeing.

 

For more photos, click here.